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Civil War Drummer Boys: the Sons Who Went to War

By Judy Deeter

The American Civil War (1861-1865) is sometimes known as the “boys war” because so many soldiers were teenagers and even younger. It has been estimated that between 250,000 and 420,000 Civil War soldiers were under the age of 17. Several such young boys from the Miami Valley served in the war as musicians—buglers, flautists and drummers. Many people find the stories of children who served in the Civil War as drummer boys particularly interesting. 

   Although the official age to become a Civil War soldier was 18, younger boys sometimes found ways to get around the age limitation. They could enlist for a non-combat position such as a musician, enlist if they had permission from an adult, or sometimes they lied to the recruiters, who often did not document the age of those they were enlisting. If boys looked like they were 18, the recruiters often allowed them to enlist. An old story says that boys used to write the number “18” on the bottom of their shoes. When a recruiter asked if they were over 18, they could say they were because the number was on the bottom of their shoes.

   The most famous of the Civil War drummer boys was Johnny Clem of Newark, Ohio, who first tried to enlist in the military at the age of nine. As military regiments passed through Newark, he tried to enlist. Regimental officers, however, refused to allow him to enlist because of his age. He first tried to join Ohio’s 3rd Regiment, but was turned down. Some historians believe at some time he may have been given permission to join the 24th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, but he did not stay with them. His third try was with the 22nd Michigan Regiment. Though they refused his request to enlist, they did give him permission to follow them and adopted him as their mascot. Soon thereafter, he became their drummer boy. Soldiers in the regiment collected money to pay him a monthly salary of $13 and found a uniform for him to wear. (NOTE: Various stories give the age that he tried to enlist in the military as between nine and eleven years old. He was born August 13, 1851. It is believed he tried to enlist in May 1861, a short time before his tenth birthday. His mother had been killed in a train accident. He ran away from home to join the military.)

   Clem was a brave boy. One story says that he remained calm, though his drum was smashed by a Confederate cannonball as he was playing it. During the Battle of Chickamauga, Confederate forces drove the Union troops from the battlefield. As the Union forces were retreating, a Confederate Colonel ordered Clem to give up. Instead, Clem picked up a gun and killed the Colonel. Later in that same battle Clem was captured, but managed to escape. Newspapers published the story of Clem’s bravery and he became a national celebrity. He became known as “Johnny Shiloh” and “the Drummer Boy of Chickamauga.” For his bravery, he was promoted to Lance Corporal. It should be noted that historians today argue over the facts about Clem’s wartime exploits. Some say that he couldn’t have been at the Battle of Shiloh with the 22nd Michigan because the regiment wasn’t formed until after the battle. Other historians say that Union newspaper reports exaggerated Clem’s wartime adventures to support the war efforts. Clem spent most of his life in the United States military. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant made him a second lieutenant in the United States Army, after he failed an entrance exam to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He remained in the United States Army until his retirement in 1915. He was both the youngest non-commissioned military officer in United States history and the last Civil War veteran to leave the military. He was a Brigadier-General at the time of his retirement.

Sgt. John Clem, USA, Library of Congress, public domain.jpg
Maj. Genl. John Clem, 1922. Library of Congress, public domain.jpg

Sgt. John Clem (a.k.a. “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh”), born in Newark, Ohio.

At right: Maj. Genl. Clem in 1922. 
Both images from the Library of Congress, public domain.

   Author Webb Garrison wrote in his book A Treasury of Civil War Tales that after newspaper stories about Clem were published, “In North and South alike, small boys by the hundreds, and then by the thousands, eagerly enlisted and marched off to war like veterans.” Researchers of historical regimental rosters have found that more than 2,000 Union regiments had at least two drummer boys—many just teenagers. Most boys wore uniforms of whatever could be put together for them—discarded uniforms from soldiers and, supposedly in one case, a uniform from the Mexican War (1846-1848).  

   Drummer boys played the drums in patterns of beats that were coded signals, which told troops actions to take:

to meet, attack or retreat. During battles, soldiers couldn’t always hear the voice of a commander, but they could hear the sound of a drum. The drummers played 26 different beat patterns. Both the soldiers and drummer boys had to memorize the sounds of the beat patterns and their meanings. The signal to attack was a long, repeated beat.  

   The life of a drummer boy was sometimes scary. In his book Voices from the Past, Volume II, Shelby County historian Rich Wallace tells stories of Shelby County men of the 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry in the battle of Atlanta, July 1864. He wrote a chapter based on accounts of Captain E. E. Nutt and Private William W. Updegraff of the regiment. In his story, Wallace tells of a frightened drummer boy at the battle, “At one point amidst the smoke and din, the men observed a white-haired drummer boy, dressed in Union blue, running toward their breastworks. Panic was etched on his face as he dove for the safety of Nutt and his men amid a shower of musketry. The boy made it to safety.”

   Drummer boys usually stayed to the rear of the fighting. They often assisted the medical corps by walking the battlefields looking for wounded men. They served as stretcher bearers, carrying wounded soldiers to safety, helped bandage wounded soldiers and gave medical help to doctors as needed. Sometimes they even moved limbs that had been amputated from soldiers’ bodies.


James Shellenberger - Covington, Ohio
   It may have been the work with the medical corps that inspired one drummer boy to become a doctor after the war. A Covington, Ohio boy named James Shellenberger joined Company B of the 94th Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a drummer boy when he was 16 years old. (He was the son of Jacob and Jane Shellenberger of Covington.) At first, he was placed under the command of Captain John Drury of Troy. (Unfortunately, Drury was killed at the battle of Perryville on October 8, 1862.) Shellenberger was a drummer boy for the regiment throughout the war. He was discharged from the Army in 1865.  

   Soon after returning home from the war, Shellenberger began his medical career by working with Dr. John Sensman of Tippecanoe City (Tipp City), Ohio. After several months with Dr. Sensman, he went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to get a formal education at the Jefferson Medical College. He graduated from the college in March 1869 and then returned to Ohio to begin his career as a doctor. He first worked in Covington, then in Tippecanoe City (Tipp City) and finally at Piqua. In the mid-1870s, he married Emma Chaffee of Tippecanoe City, daughter of prominent local residents Sidney and Barbara Chaffee. In 1897, he helped organize the Alexander-Mitchell Post #158 of the Grand Army of the Republic at Piqua (a merger of the Alexander GAR Post #158 and the O.M. Mitchell Post #736). Sometime in the 1890’s, Shellenberger decided to become a military doctor. (One source says that he “was asked” to become a military doctor.) Stories also say that he was told he was too old to join the military as an enlisted doctor, but could work for the military as a contract doctor, which he did. In fact, he remained with the military the rest of his life. He served during the Spanish American War (1898) as a Surgeon of the 3rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. In July 1899, US President McKinley appointed him as a surgeon with the 34th Infantry with the rank of Major. He worked in Northern Luzon of the Philippines Island until he was mustered out on April 17, 1901. (The time of his service was during the Philippine Insurrection, 1899-1902.) A year later in April 1902, he returned to the military as a contract surgeon for the United States Army. For the rest of his life  he served on military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. He died at Cincinnati in February 1907 of heart problems and is buried at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Piqua.

Piqua Public Library Credit for Judy Civil War Story.jpg
Civil War Drum at Museum of Troy History by Judy Deeter.jpg

LEFT: A photo of Piqua drummer boy Lucius Cron and his drum. The photograph is now housed at the Piqua Public Library. 
Photo credit: Piqua Public Library Local History Department. 
RIGHT: What might have been a drum used during the Civil War and housed at the Museum of Troy History.

Lucius Cron - Piqua, Ohio
   Probably the best-known drummer boy from Miami County is Lucius Cron of Piqua. For most of his early life, Cron had worked with wood or been around people who worked with wood. His father, Nicholas Cron, was a carpenter. When Lucius Cron was 18, he became an apprentice to a cabinet maker. Later he founded a cabinet shop and worked as a junior partner to a person named S. Alware. It only seemed natural that when Cron joined the 110th Ohio Volunteer Infantry as a drummer boy, he would take with him to war a wooden drum that he had made. Cron was in his mid-20s when he went to war—a little older than many drummer boys. At some point during the war, he was promoted as the regiment’s chief musician. He remained with the regiment throughout the war.

   Returning home from the war, in 1868, Cron founded the L.C. & W.L. Cron Company with his cousin William Cron, who had been a First Lieutenant in Company A of the 110th Volunteer Infantry. Lucius Cron was a founder, business partner and officer in multiple businesses in Piqua. He served as a Democrat Mayor of the village of Huntersville (Shawnee) (1867-1891). In 1898, he moved from Huntersville across the Great Miami River into Piqua. He then became a member of the Piqua City Council, serving from 1898 to 1901. He was the Council President 1900-1901 and Mayor of Piqua from 1906-1909. He died March 26, 1926. He is also buried at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Piqua.

   Years after the Civil War ended, a portrait was made of Cron with the drum he had made and played during the war. The drum and photograph are now part of an historical artifact collection at the Piqua Public Library.

William Morris - Miami County
   William H. Morris, a Miami County resident, was also a drummer boy in Company A of the 110th Ohio Volunteer Infantry along with Cron. He too was in his 20s when he enlisted. A roster for the 110th says that he was captured by the Confederate Army along with others in his company at the second battle of Winchester, Virginia on June 15, 1863.  When and how Morris and his comrades were released has not been located.

William Dalton - Piqua, Ohio
   William Dalton of Piqua was a drummer boy in Company A of the 71st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.  His obituary says that he was 12 when he enlisted for war on January 13, 1862, but other records show he was 15. After the war, he returned to Piqua and worked as a bricklayer. He died in Piqua on June 22, 1919.

   The Museum of Troy History has a drum that is believed to have been used in the war by a Miami County soldier. Those knowledgeable about the Civil War say that the drum is too large to have been carried by a drummer boy, but it may have been used during the era as a parade drum. It can be seen at the Museum on Saturdays and Sundays from 1-4 p.m. The museum is located at 124 E. Water St. in Troy.

   Civil War rosters for Ohio regiments are both online, and in some libraries and museums throughout the area. The rosters show the names of soldiers, their regiment, dates of enlistment and discharge, and the age of the soldier at the time of enlistment. Some rosters may note whether a soldier was injured, died or was captured.

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